papacy: In the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages

A fateful event for the papacy was the donation of lands made to the pope by the Frankish king Pepin the Short in 756. The papacy had already been given lands (since the 4th cent.), but it was the Donation of Pepin that came to be considered the real as well as the symbolic founding of the Papal States. The pope thus became a powerful lay prince as well as an ecclesiastical ruler. This intermingling of powers was a determining condition in the struggle between church and state that was a main theme in the history of the West in the Middle Ages. Strong lay princes attempted to direct the church just as the pope tried to establish secular as well as spiritual supremacy over the rulers.

A central point at issue in the 11th and 12th cent. was investiture, but the conflict was far wider and deeper. Although all in the West affirmed that Christendom was under the pope in Rome, that affirmation had little bearing on the question of papal supremacy in secular affairs. By crowning (800) Charlemagne, Leo III at once sponsored the empire and sanctioned the creation of a state which, as the Roman Empire (see Holy Roman Empire), was to be the chief antagonist of the papacy for centuries.

The papacy reached a high point of corruption in the 10th cent., when the Holy See was cynically bought and sold. Under Leo IX reform began, but bitter feeling between East and West brought the break with patriarch of Constantinople (1054); late in the 11th cent. sweeping reforms were carried out by the forceful Gregory VII. From that time forward the relative power of the papacy in quarrels with the emperor and with the kings of England, France, Naples, and Spain depended largely on the successes of individual popes and individual rulers. Pope Alexander III was pitted against Roman Emperor Frederick I and against King Henry II of England, and Pope Innocent III, despite opposition by Emperor Otto IV and Emperor Frederick II, made himself virtual arbiter of the West.

Innocent's reign (1198–1216) marked the zenith of papal secular power. As a religious leader Innocent worked to reform clerical morals and combat heresy. He ordered (1208) a crusade against the heretical Albigenses in S France that ended disastrously and cast a shadow over his pontificate. A century later Boniface VIII, an able canon lawyer, proved himself no match for the ruthless king of France, Philip IV.

Pope Clement V in 1309 deserted Rome for Avignon and the domination of France. During the so-called Babylonian captivity (1309–78) all the popes were French, all lived at Avignon, and all were under the control of the French kings. The Avignonese papacy represented the culmination of the administrative structure of the church, which reached into almost all corners of Europe.

Pope Gregory XI—acting partly on the advice of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Bridget of Sweden—moved the papacy back to Rome. But the church was immediately plunged into the disorder of the Great Schism (1378–1417). There were two or even three rival popes at a time (in later determination of true succession, those claimants ruled out of the succession are called antipopes). The schism ended in the Council of Constance (see Constance, Council of). Since then, apart from the abortive revolt at the Council of Basel (see Basel, Council of), there has been no schism in the papacy.

Subsequently, the pope had little real power outside Italy, and no 15th-century pope was prepared to attempt serious reform, which would have required challenging the vested interests of bishops, cardinals, and princes. Indeed, in the 15th cent. the papal court made Rome a brilliant Renaissance capital, enriched by some of the finest art of the West. The Renaissance popes, however, were little distinguished from other princes in the extravagance and immorality of their courts.

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